Toby L. Parcel: School Assignment and the Emotional Investment of Mothers

The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments, by Toby L. Parcel and Andrew J. TaylorWe welcome a guest post today from Toby L. Parcel, co-author of The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments. One of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas, Wake County, North Carolina, added more than a quarter million new residents during the first decade of this century, an increase of almost 45 percent. At the same time, partisanship increasingly dominated local politics, including school board races. Against this backdrop, Toby Parcel and Andrew Taylor consider the ways diversity and neighborhood schools have influenced school assignment policies in Wake County, particularly during 2000–2012, when these policies became controversial locally and a topic of national attention.

In today’s post, Parcel discusses her new research into survey results that reveal a gender distinction when it comes to concern and decision-making about school assignment. Read more about this new research in the journal Socius.


Are women more supportive of diverse schools than men? Do mothers bear more of the burden than fathers when children’s school assignments change? If so, what is worrying them?

These are some of the questions I am investigating following the 2015 publication of my book, The End of Consensus, with Andy Taylor. In that work, Andy and I reported results of a mixed-methods study that used interviews, focus groups, archival data, case studies, and a 2011 representative survey of Wake County adults to understand school assignment policy change in the county.

We found that rapid population growth, which prompted longer bus rides and at times mandatory attendance at year-round schools, caused strong citizen reaction. The growth of the Republican Party in Wake was also a contributing factor because its members were less committed to diverse schools and more invested in neighborhood schools than other residents. In addition, we found that citizens worried that student reassignments from one school to another, a strategy the board used to manage growth and promote diversity, were damaging both to children’s learning and their school friendships; we found these reassignments were perceived as challenging for parents and children; citizens also worried about the sometimes unclear process the school board used to decide which children would be reassigned and when.

With colleagues Josh Hendrix and Andy Taylor I have followed up this work with a new publication that explores these issues for 547 Wake County parents with children enrolled in local public schools. We studied this subgroup because we thought these issues would be particularly salient for parents of children currently enrolled in Wake schools. We used as our foundation the qualitative work from the larger study that had highlighted parental concerns with diversity, neighborhood schools, and reassignments. For example, one pro-diversity advocate expressed her views this way: “It is not OK to segregate our schools. It is not OK to deliberately create high-poverty schools and claim that you are going to have all these fixes, whether it is funding or innovative programs, etc. It is just wrong, and that is why I am in this debate. My children will be fine regardless of where they go to school because I have the ability to make it fine for them, but not everybody has those resources, and it is not OK with me to leave other kids behind.”

Alternatively, diversity’s opponents argued that the policy did not further the system’s goal of providing children with a good education. One African American community leader stated, “I just don’t think diversity, shipping kids around, really matters as much as them getting a good education, and at the end of the day, there is a job.” Some comments indicated that moving away from neighborhood schools interfered with social connections between families and schools: “I do go back to when I was growing up,” said one conservative activist. “We had ownership of our school system and we were proud of it. I don’t get this sense of pride [here in Wake].” When children live far away from where they are educated, another argued, “parents are unable to play the kind of role that they want to . . . in their kids’ schools. . . . They cannot be in PTA; they cannot involve themselves.”

Building on this work, we used our survey data to study who favored diverse schools, who favored neighborhood schools, and who worried about school reassignments. We found that mothers favored diverse schools more than fathers, but they also favored neighborhood schools more than fathers. These findings reinforce conclusions from The End of Consensus, suggesting that support for diversity and support for neighborhood schools are not polar opposites. So it is possible for people to value diverse schools while also wanting their children to attend schools close to home. But these findings also underscore that mothers experience strong conflict in reconciling these attitudes, which are negatively related, although not perfectly so.

Other findings tie to these sentiments in logical ways. Mothers are more worried than fathers about the challenge of children’s reassignments; they worry more about the dangers to child learning and friendships when children are reassigned; and they are more concerned about the uncertainty that children and families experience when children are reassigned. All of these findings hold up to analysis of alternative explanations. Taken together, these findings suggest that while fathers undoubtedly care about children’ schooling, mothers are more emotionally invested in some of the specific elements that challenge families of school-aged children today.

We use these findings to argue that Wake mothers are exerting greater “negative emotional capital” than Wake fathers in managing children’s school attendance. Sociologists have found that parents’ use of negative emotions, such as concern and anxiety, are mechanisms through which they can protect children. These concerns reflect parents’ investments in their children’s well-being, and may prompt parental action. Such concerns may also be part of what sociologists have called “intensive mothering,” which in itself suggests that mothers may be more likely than fathers to exercise negative emotional capital.

We have wondered whether our findings generalize beyond the borders of Wake County, and are currently conducting research to investigate this idea specifically. At this point, however, we think that concerns reflected in dimensions of emotional capital such as challenge, dangers, and uncertainty may be very broadly generalizable. School choice is now relatively common nationwide. Having a choice in school assignments means someone must undertake work to make what each household considers the right choice. When households debate between neighborhood and magnet options, or among magnet options, or between traditional and year-round calendars, or between public and private schools, the exercise of emotional capital is relevant. Also, some families are choosing to home school their children, which almost certainly increases the workload of mothers in these households. Future research should take more seriously the negative emotional capital expended and the work it implies for households, particularly for mothers, when children do not attend neighborhood schools.

Toby L. Parcel is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University and co-author of The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments